by Emily Dietrich

August 1, 2016
by Emily
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Love and Jazz in the Time of War


Esi Edugyan’s prize-winning novel Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen, 2011) tells the story of struggling African-American jazz musicians in World War II Europe. Her narrator, Sid Griffiths, is the heartsick drummer, hoping in 1992 to redeem himself from the events from 1940. Called back to commemorate a documentary about their lives in Germany, Sid asks himself to put things right, but first he re-experiences the terrible fear and painful love he felt amid Krystallnacht and the Nazi occupation of Paris.

In 1940 Berlin the young jazz ensemble’s lives are unbearably taut. The competition between them holds its own agonies, yet the musicians seem as close as brothers. Never quite measuring up as a drummer, Sid doubts everything about himself, especially in comparison with his German/African friend Hieronymos Falk, a Wunderkind who has both Louis Armstrong’s attention and that of Delilah, Sid’s heart’s desire. Making it in music, making it in love–the two are equivalent for the talented, inexperienced musicians. Their music depends on each other–but so does their survival. With Germany falling to Nazism, they leave behind the inroads to success they’ve made as jazz itself has become suspect, and the musicians flee France.

But Paris brings  failure and betrayals and instead of safety, and still, over 50 years later, everything aches. Sid may be able to release some of his guilt and shame, but not without hurting someone he loves.

Erdugyan creates these relationships and personalities using an idiosyncratic and jumpy discourse between the musicians. Their conversations and their reunion concretize–for the characters and the reader–the historical and emotional moment that has come into being when people in their 20s share remarkable experiences. Erdugyan illuminates both the historical period and the cruel bargains hearts make.

Half-Blood Prince the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was a finalist for Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Awards and the Man Booker Prize. Esi Erdugyan lives in Vancouver, Canada.

July 19, 2016
by Emily
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A Delusional Adventure to the Arctic

in the kingdom of iceIn the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides reads like a steampunk fantasy, but it is a true story–hard to believe and surprising to read. The late nineteenth century version of reality TV, this voyage was produced and undertaken under the auspices of James Gordon Bennett, Jr. and his notoriously unreliable newspaper the New York Herald in an unabashed effort to sell papers. Using the latest, most up-to-date theories and technology, this voyage to the North Pole embarked under the delusion that the arctic circle was really open sea, free from ice. The Jeannette and its crew, however, were almost completely crushed by ice instead.

Hampton Sides’s deep and thorough research takes us all over the world as he traces the history of the quest for the North Pole, through the science of navigation, map-making, ocean currents. He does the crew justice, too, describing the complex and compelling characters, most of whose lives were given to the cause of exploration and knowledge. For example, George De Long, the Jeannette’s captain, and his new bride conduct their marriage through sweet letters and telegraphs, and Sides goes as far as historical fiction can in depicting their relationship of love, suffering and loss fully and realistically. My favorite part of non-fiction books is the center pages with all the pictures, and In the Kingdom of Ice boasts a plethora of portraits of people and crafts to pore over.

This voyage did earn its place on the map, discovering uncharted islands, for example. It merits a place on your reading list for its unforgettable scenes of the men’s journey over the ice after the Jeannette is crushed by ice. Their sickening hardships and ordeals, as well as their many meaningful triumphs, seem cinematic in scope. I would definitely watch this movie, and I’ll never forget this book.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. Anchor Books, 2015.

July 1, 2016
by Emily
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Shadow and Shine in Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Claire of Sea

I consume literature, movies, TV with the absurd idea that I can learn from others’ misfortunes how to anticipate and avoid them in my life and the lives of those I love. Ha! With Claire of the Sea Light, I hoped from the beginning to turn the tides against what Danticat presents as the sad outcome. I mean, it could happen, right? All could be well?

But it’s Haiti, and things are hard. People are poor. Many suffer. Yet the impoverished life of Claire and her father Nozias seems sufficient for happiness, shining with the light of the sea and shore, a roof overhead, food and love. Their village has its dramas and secrets. Most have tragedies to color their lives. Claire, seven years old, knows only what she knows, and that is the obvious necessity of her life with her father.

Danticat’s prose swells and shines, pulling us into and through the Haitian milieu. The sea light is a presence throughout, beautiful but fierce, comforting but unyielding. Nozias and Claire live in this light, but Nozias, unlike Claire, feels bound to search for the better life–if not for himself, at least for his daughter. The only way she can fight back is to disappear.

In leafing through this novel to write this entry, I felt ready to read it again right now, to remember the details more clearly and savor the moments when the currents yielded a moment, letting the narrative, the reader, the characters, rest, look around, absorb the beauties and realities, before being pulled again, away from what? toward what?

This novel was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and NPR. Edwidge Danticat has written 5 novels and was a MacArthur Fellowship recipient.


June 23, 2016
by Emily
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Iron Tenderness in The Samurai’s Garden

Samurai's garden

Gail Tsukiyama created a world I have since needed to visit in her novel The Samurai’s Garden . I end up there when trying to cope with the hard news of another shooting or kidnapping and seeking calm, peace or escape. I read her 1994 novel at least a year ago, yet the garden’s colors, shapes and moods in different weather live vibrantly in my imagery bank. The novel’s topics can shake and disturb peace–a father’s betrayal, the Rape of Nanking, leprosy, for example–yet the center holds in her novel, in the garden, in my heart.

The center holds because of Tsukiyama’s prose, smooth and elegant, and in her complex characters, pummeled by life and still calm. She shows us a son’s pain at his father’s abandoning him, shows us a towering love story, educates us about the devastating war between Japan and China in 1937-8, about leper colonies and Japanese village life all the while insisting both that readers comprehend the depth of pain and remain awake to the beauty of the world. Stephen, our young narrator who suffers from tuberculosis, works at this balance for himself–and brings us along.

Tsukiyama’s novel, says the San Jose Mercury News, “ranks with the best of predecessors Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. The finely detailed setting and compelling mix of characters combine in a story that will encourage many readings to come.” Tsukiyama was raised in San Francisco, the child of a Japanese father and a Chinese mother.

May 31, 2016
by Emily
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“Indignation” and My Father’s Army Years


The movie version of Philip Roth’s novel is called “Indignation,” and its main character, Marcus Messner, has every right to his. Squeezed by threat of being drafted if he didn’t fit in and do well in his first years at a small university in Ohio, as well as by demands by school and parents on his love life, Marcus has to speak out and act out if he is to avoid exploding. The main character’s personal ethics and life circumstances are so similar to my father’s that I deepened my understanding of my father’s army experience, how he got to Korea and why.

“Indignation” is a good word for what I would have been feeling if I had been put under the pressure my father was, but he never expressed any—about being drafted, about being sent to war, about being shot at, about any of it. He expressed indignation occasionally, about Richard Nixon’s Watergate crimes, McCarthy’s blacklist, income inequality for example, but never about being sent to Korea.

My father told the story about getting into the army this way: he was at Miami University in Ohio. He was taking engineering classes and doing so poorly, though working hard, that he figured he was stupid. He got drafted, had some time to think, and when he came back he switched to Wayne State University in Detroit and went into pre-law.

He never mentioned that going to college meant being able to defer the draft—but only if you earned good enough grades to be in the top 50% of your freshman class. Fitting in at college was also important, because you could be asked to leave if you didn’t. At the private college in the movie “Indignaton,” students are expected to go to chapel and to rush a fraternity. Marcus Messner is an atheist of Jewish heritage and didn’t see himself in a fraternity. He expresses his opinion that going to chapel was not fair. My father was also an atheist, and he told us that he was blackballed from at least one fraternity for expressing his pro-civil rights opinions.

He was being a young man, like Marcus Messner, searching for, and expressing, his developing identity. He majored in the wrong subject, totally unsuited to him, but engineering was what his father and his older brother studied, the subject that would prepare him to work in his father’s concrete business. Being not-so-great at an engineering curriculum meant getting drafted.

I think about how it must have felt to get his grades in the mail, facing his disappointment in his abilities would be hard enough, but those grades meant he was going to war. Did it feel as if it were his own fault? Did he feel he had only himself to blame? On his behalf, I feel indignation and anger that a country would send young men to die because they couldn’t afford college or struggled in college. It’s outrageous to attach the draft to achievement in that way. The draft itself is outrageous.

I often criticized my father and my mother for caring too much about what other people thought, for caring a lot about image and acting like everything was just fine all the time. I didn’t know, I really didn’t know, that the penalty for nonconformity had been so high, that fitting in and doing well meant life or death at an age when failure is the best teacher for a long life—not a crime punishable by death in war.

I feel sad that my dad thought he was stupid. though glad that he used his time in Korea to learn more about his talents. I know he was very pleased he became a lawyer, a job he loved all his life. I don’t understand why he told the story that way, left out the part about having to go to war because of his grades. I admire him for not being bitter about it. I’m extremely grateful that he was not killed.

This new knowledge comes at a good time for me. I will send my son to college this fall. It won’t be easy. But it’s not, as far as the government is concerned, a life or death situation. He can screw up and not be designated as a candidate for death. He can get indignant about whatever he wants.

Marcus Messner’s indignation showed me how angry the young men of the ’50s could have been and had every right to be. That my father wasn’t and accepted his situation with stoicism speaks of his inner strength and sense of personal accountability. For that, and for strong dialogue, great costumes and acting, and the powerful story of a young women who also did not, could not conform, I recommend seeing “Indignation.” I may even read the book!

But seeing this movie, for me, meant a wide window into a soul I miss so deeply has been opened, bringing me closer to my father.